Shining a light on epilepsy

Published: Monday, November 27, 2023

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3.4 million Americans are living with epilepsy, including 470,000 children. How much do you know about this common condition?

November is designated as National Epilepsy Awareness Month each year, offering a good opportunity to learn more about the condition and who it affects. Keep reading to get a look at the facts.

Defining epilepsy

Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the world. It is marked by recurrent seizures, which are periods of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. A seizure occurs when electrical outbursts disrupt the normal communication channels between cells in the brain, causing changes in movement, function, behavior, and awareness. 

There are many different types of seizures, each causing unique behaviors and symptoms, but seizures related to epilepsy are unprovoked and sudden. What does that mean? Well, a provoked seizure is one related to an acute and temporary physical cause, such as an infection, a drop in blood sugar, or alcohol withdrawal.

An unprovoked seizure, then, is one that has no known immediate underlying physical cause. Epilepsy may be diagnosed after a person has two unprovoked seizures, or after one unprovoked seizure if the person is believed to be at a high risk of future seizures.

In up to half of all cases, there is no known cause for epilepsy. In other cases, a brain injury or a condition like a brain tumor or stroke can cause the seizure disorder.

The signs & symptoms of epilepsy

Because epilepsy can cause different types of seizures, the symptoms a person experiences will vary, too. Symptoms may include:

  • Change in consciousness
  • Emotional swings
  • Loss of alertness
  • Loss of muscle tone
  • Muscle stiffening or jerking
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Smelling an odor that isn’t actually there
  • Staring spells
  • Tingling sensation
  • Violent shaking

There are two primary types of seizures—focal and generalized. The names provide a clue about the way each type of seizure affects the brain. Focal seizures are more focused, involving brain activity in a single part of the brain, while generalized seizures involve electrical activity in the entire brain.

Along with being different types of seizures, there are also different types of epilepsy, including:

  • Absence epilepsy (which causes momentary lapses of consciousness) 
  • Frontal lobe epilepsy (which causes clusters of focal seizures)
  • Temporal lobe epilepsy (which causes a period of impaired consciousness)
  • Neocortical epilepsy (which causes seizures originating from the cerebral cortex)

How epilepsy is treated

While epilepsy is very common, it is also very treatable. Up to 70 percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy can become seizure-free with the help of treatment.

After a person is diagnosed with epilepsy, testing can be used to determine the specific type of epilepsy. This testing may include blood work, an electroencephalogram (EEG) to identify where in the brain a seizure begins, imaging scans, and neuropsychological testing. 

It’s important for treatment for epilepsy to begin quickly after a diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurologist and other experts can put together a personalized treatment plan to prevent seizures. 

Antiseizure medications are the most common type of treatment and are often effective in treating the condition. There are many different medications on the market now, and it may take some experimenting to find the one (or the combination of medications) that works best with a minimum of side effects.

Lifestyle changes are also commonly recommended for those who have epilepsy. Eating a high-fat, high-protein diet known as the ketogenic diet may be effective in treating cases of epilepsy that are resistant to medications. 

In cases where lifestyle interventions and medications don’t effectively control seizures, surgery or the implantation of a neurostimulation device may be recommended.

What to know if someone you love has epilepsy

If you have a friend or family member who has epilepsy, it’s important to know what to do if and when a seizure occurs. Because different types of seizures can cause different symptoms, talking with your loved one’s medical provider about what to expect can be helpful.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some general guidance on what to do when someone has a seizure:

  • In cases where a person jerks or physically seizes during a seizure, ease the person to the floor and position him or her on one side or the other. Put something soft under his or her head.
  • Do not try to hold the person down or put anything in his or her mouth.
  • Stay with the person until the seizure is over and he or she is awake. Do not provide water or food until he or she is fully alert.
  • Help the person sit in a safe place in the minutes after the seizure. Explain what happened and speak in comforting terms.

If you can, take mental notes of what happened during the seizure, as well as how long it lasted. This information can be shared with your loved one’s medical care team and used to guide future treatment.

Learn more

Northeast Georgia Physicians Group Neurology treats a wide range of neurological conditions, including epilepsy. Call 770-219-6520 or click here for more information.